One Big Mix

If life is music, then sometimes you have to step up and mix different tracks together like a DJ. Photo by Isabella Mendes from Pexels

Access to 2 new articles and a story that didn’t make it into print

It’s been a busy week here at Remota HQ. I live in Canada and work for a US company, which means I had two days to dive into my writing. That means I have 2 articles and a deleted scene to share with you. Two of my remote work pieces went live in the last five days. One of them is behind a paywall, but I have a friend link for you. Anyone who reads this blog is a friend of mine.

Turn ‘Them’ into ‘Us:’ How to Make Remote Workers Part of the Team

I wrote this for ‘The Startup.’ If you’re part of a partially remote, partially office-bound team, this one is for you. If you’ve been looking for a way to tell your boss that you can’t hear half of what’s said in team meetings because your office colleagues all crowd around one computer, now you don’t have to. You can just send this article. Remote employee managers: this is what your employees wish you knew.

Working from Home During the Holidays

This appeared in CEO World on December 3rd. If you work remotely, you’ve had to juggle working in your home. You probably have go-to strategies that you use to set boundaries with the people who live with you. This article delivers 5 tips to help you work when you’re visiting family who don’t understand what ‘working from home’ means.

It wasn’t until just now that I realized both of these articles talk about mixing in one way or another. In one we’re mixing on-site and off-site employees. In the other, we’re mixing family with work. Hopefully the advice listed will let you adeptly DJ your own life. Up next is something that was pulled from the mix.

The Story that Didn’t Make it into ‘Working from Home.’

When I first envisioned this piece, I planned to start with my own experience trying working from my mom’s house. However, I’m part of a remote work Slack chat, and when I put out a request for people to contribute personal experiences, I received far more than I expected. I don’t know why I was so surprised–the reason I visit that group is because they’re intelligent, generous people. They were simply acting like they always do.

In any event, I scrapped my original idea and reworked the article to fit in as many of the pithy tips as possible. Here’s the story I cut:

It’s the summer of 2010. I’m sitting in my step-dad’s home office, presenting at a work meeting via video call. All of a sudden my audience erupts in laughter. I don’t know why. It isn’t until I hear “Here you go, Auntie Teresa,” that I realize my nephew is standing behind me, mug of tea in one hand, and plate of toast in the other.

My husband, baby daughter and I had driven up to San Jose from Los Angeles the night before to see family, but I needed to work part of the time to extend our visit.

It took several interruptions spread across many days before I figured out that I was the reason I was getting interrupted. My step dad works in sales. When he works from home, he’s either making phone calls to schedule appointments, or completing paperwork. He makes zero video calls.

Epiphany

I hadn’t explained to my mother what I do when I work from home. So she assumed my work day would look a lot like my step-dad’s. She did everything she could to make sure I had a good working conditions: 1) She kicked my step-dad out of his own office. 2) She told everyone to be quiet when they walked into the room, and wait until I wasn’t talking before speaking to me.

If my work had been the same as my step dad’s, then this would have been the perfect set up. Instead, it was a learning experience. I learned that telling people that I need to work from 10 until 2, for example, isn’t enough.

Help Family Visualize Your Work Day

If you want to work with family around, they need to know when it’s okay to talk to you. Often you also have to explain how much the camera can see. Fortunately for me, when my nephew walked into my video meeting, all he did was make faces at the camera. When my company first went remote, a colleague’s partner walked behind him while we were holding a video meeting, wearing a very brief towel. There are some sides of people’s partners you just shouldn’t see.

Help your family avoid embarrassment and explain how you do your work.

Once my mother knew I was on video calls with people who could see when family walked in the door, she kept everyone–including my step-dad*– out of the office. I could have avoided so much frustration with one conversation. Learn from my mistake.

So that’s the story that didn’t make it into my article ‘Working from Home During the Holidays.’ Hopefully you find it helpful if you have to mix extended family with work. May your family not flash anyone on camera, nor interrupt you when you’re trying to focus.

*For the record, while I did feel sort of bad about colonizing my step-dad’s office, I didn’t feel bad enough to give up the space until I was done with it. This probably makes me a bad person. Ah well.

10 Signs that Your Remote-Work Conversion is Complete

If at least two of these ring true, then baby, you’re a remote worker now.

Photo by Canva Studios via Pexels.com
  1. The most exciting purchase you make on Black Friday is a wifi extender.
  2. You know the four closest public spaces with working internet, and the best time to find a seat.
  3. Coordinating a meeting with colleagues who live in three different countries is no big deal, but the thought of taking the bus during rush hour makes you die a little inside.
  4. You’re out in the physical world and you wonder why nobody mutes their mic before coughing.
  5. ‘Work shoes’ are for other people.
  6. You suspect that your immune system has completely broken down because you no longer get exposed to the annual office cold.
  7. Before going to a networking event, you have to Google what ‘business appropriate’ means from the waist down.
  8. You forget that talking to your computer is frowned on in public.
  9. Some of your closest workmates are people you’ve never met in the physical world.
  10. Science says we can’t multitask, but you can trade instant messages with your coworker while also participating in the weekly team meeting.
Photo by Pixaby via Pexels.com

We are the remote. Resistance is futile.

Remote Book Relaunch

A Peak Behind the book publishing curtain

You need a lot of fuel to get a rocket into space. You need nearly the same amount of caffeine to launch a book. Photo by Pixabay from Pexels.com

My book for remote employees is going to launch with Simon Schuster in January 2020. I’ve known about this for some time, but we had to hit a certain point in the book launch process before I could share details with you. Today, as a thank you for sticking with me during the great blog post slowdown of October/November 2019, I want to give you a peak behind the book launch curtain.

The Book is Getting a New Title

My co-authors and I signed a book contract that says our publisher has the right to change the title if necessary. This is The Way Things Go in traditional publishing, and I have no problem with it. Titles aren’t my forte. I don’t know how a person can write a book and post articles (nearly) every week for more than a year and still have trouble coming up with good titles, but that’s me in a nutshell.

We’re really lucky that our original indie publisher 750 is committed to keeping its authors looped in as much as possible. Instead, they gave us Simon Schuster’s feedback and let us propose another title.

If you or anyone you know is thinking of writing a business book, Simon Schuster thinks that the best business book titles are clear. The title should not only tell you what the book is about, but who it’s for. I love our old title ‘Secrets of the Remote Workforce,’ but that doesn’t tell you who the book is for. We fixed that with the new title.

Is the title of the book sexy? No. But it does tell you what you’re going to get and I like that.

May I present Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams. Holly, Mike and I came up with this title the same way we wrote the book. We proposed different titles, talked through what we liked and disliked, and came up with something together.

For those who aren’t familiar with the book, we discuss how to survive and thrive as a remote employee. We cover how to set up your office, how to combat loneliness, and how go grow in your career when you work from an office of one.

The Team Has a Publicist

Publishing a book is a little surreal. Most people have opinions about the things they’ve done. Some of us decide to write a book about what we know. We believe we wrote a book with a lot of useful information to share with remote employees. We spent a lot of time making sure we covered remote-specific topics. On some level, though, it’s still surprising that a traditional publisher agreed to release our book out into the world.

Getting a publicist brings the surreal feeling to another level. We have access to an expert to help us get the word out about our book. That’s pretty neat. I collect skills the way crazy cat ladies collect cats, and I can’t wait to see what I learn from this experience. We’re working on a few things that aren’t quite ready to talk about yet, but I look forward to sharing them with you in due course.

While you CAN have too many cats, you can’t have too many skills. Anyway that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Photo by Pixabay from Pexels.com

Did you like this sneak peak? Leave me a comment to let me know either way. Is there anything about book publishing you would love to know about? Leave that question in the comments. If there’s enough interest in the business side of book publishing I’ll post other tidbits as we gear up to launch the book.

We Can’t Solve Burnout Culture with an Email Ban

Give people solid reasons for changing their over-working ways and they will do so.

Photo by Ashutosh Jaiswal from Pexels

People Problems Need People-Centric Solutions.

The BBC published this article discussing why banning email outside of work hours might do more harm than good. The arguments focused on why highly anxious or highly ambitious people might need to access work email outside of work hours.

The bigger question is why are employees anxious if they can’t check email after work? Why does an ambitious go-getter need to log long hours in order to get promoted? There is a difference between occasionally working longer hours in order to finish a project, and chronic hyper-connectedness. Failure to disconnect from work is a symptom. If we really want people to disconnect and recharge, we need to address the root cause of the behavior.

To better illustrate this, let’s pretend that you are at a friend’s house for dinner. You’re both in the kitchen–you are cutting up vegetables and your friend is tenderizing meat with a mallet. Suddenly your friend takes the mallet and repeatedly pounds his hand with it.

There are a lot of things you would do in that moment. You might shout ‘stop!’ You might wrestle away the mallet.

Under no circumstances would you think you solved the problem by taking away the device your friend used to harm himself. Until someone uncovers why your friend did what he did, you can’t be sure he’ll never do it again.

Failing to Disconnect from Work is Also Harmful

Working all the time isn’t as instantly (and spectacularly) destructive as pounding your hand with a mallet, but it’s still harmful. People who don’t disconnect enough are prime candidates for burnout. According Salvagioni, et all 2017 in the article ‘Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies:

Burnout was a significant predictor of the following physical consequences: hypercholesterolemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, changes in pain experiences, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and mortality below the age of 45 years. 

These consequences are just as harmful–if not more so–than hitting your hand with a hammer. And getting at the root causes of burnout in your company will require a thorough diagnosis.

How to Get at the Root Causes of Burnout

Employees experience burnout for a variety of reasons, just as people get sick for a variety of reasons. Going back to our earlier example, a doctor would treat your friend by asking a series of questions and making observations. A leader interested in delivering an effective solution for burnout can do the same.

It’s tempting to assume we know what’s causing the burnout and skip this step. Perhaps we have a lot of experience leading people. Perhaps we’re burned out because we receive too many emails and assume that solving our problem will solve everyone else’s, too.

As a leader, your experience at work is different from that of your employees. Your pain points may be different as well. Don’t assume you know what the problem is.

However, there are some things you CAN assume.

Assume Your Employees Know the Consequences of Overworking

People understand that working too much is unhealthy. There is an abundance of information on the consequences of burnout. Many major news feeds covered the story when the World Health Organization ruled that burnout is a medical diagnosis.

If most people know that overworking is unhealthy, then the next question we need to ask is why are they doing it anyway? It’s tempting to assume that they’re working off of faulty information. This leads to our next assumption.

Assume Your Employees Have a Solid Reason for What They Do

Most of our decisions are self-protective on some level. We wear nice clothes to protect our dignity and social status. We count to ten in our head to stop ourselves from saying something that will ruin a relationship. And we work too much because we think doing so protects us in some way. Or we are being overtly rewarded for doing so.

This is why simply implementing an email ban won’t work in the long run. If your people are convinced that they need to work long hours to keep their jobs or get promoted, they will continue to do so.

For many years, Kaplan had a “summer hours” policy. During the summer months, you could elect to work a little longer Monday through Thursday, and take off early on Friday. I took advantage of this policy for many summers, until I was given a new manager. This manager claimed that the summer hours policy was only for employees who worked in an actual office, not for remote workers. Therefore, her expectation was that our team would not participate.

I knew that manager was wrong. I tried to point out that the other remote teams were taking advantage of summer hours, and we should too. Unfortunately this manager wouldn’t listen. When faced with the choice of defying my new boss or working longer than necessary, you can guess which decision I made.

Your employees have a solid reason for overworking. They will share this information with you under certain circumstances.

Create Protected Spaces for Honest Feedback

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Telling your employer that you’re overworked feels risky for many people. As a leader, you can minimize the risk of honesty. It isn’t enough to say ‘please be honest,’ or ‘we value your honesty.’ You may foster an open and inclusive company, but your employees may be carrying baggage from previous employers. Or you may have a problem manager that you don’t know about yet.

Even if neither of these things are true, you must stay conscious of the power dynamic between you and your employees. You have the power to fire them. Your employees will always keep that in mind when deciding what to tell you.

One of the easiest ways to minimize risk for your employees is to use an anonymous survey. If you lead a large company then it may be easiest to retain a third party to handle creating a survey for you. If your company is small or there are budget concerns, you can build your own survey. Consider using a format that allows you to collect nuanced answers. I personally like ‘rate how much you agree with the following statements’ sorts of questions. This is what they look like:

Rate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements 1 = disagree, 2 = neither agree or disagree, and 3 = agree

  1. In my company, you have to work long hours to get promoted.
  2. I have a reasonable workload.
  3. My immediate manager cares about my work/life balance.

You can get more complicated and use a wider scale to ask if people “strongly” agree or disagree. Before you do so, ask yourself if the benefit is worth the added time it takes to create a more complicated survey. If this is your first time surveying your employees, understand that you may not get your questions right the first time. You might even consider adding a question at the end that asks ‘what other questions should we ask?’ to speed up your learning curve. As a bonus, you can learn a lot from the questions people suggest you add to the survey.

Everyone Has Time to Survey Their People

Back in my Faculty Manager days, I sent my direct reports an anonymous, annual survey in December. This was completely separate from the big engagement survey my company conducts every year. The big survey asks a lot of questions about many subjects–the point of my survey was to figure out how I could improve as a manager.

Your employees know what you have to work on. Mine were no different. Once I processed the information, I always did two things: 1) I shared the results with my people and 2) told them what I would work on in the following year. They could judge for themselves if I did what I said I was going to do.

I had anywhere between 50-100 direct reports spread across the state of California. Even with my hectic schedule–and no added administrative support– I found the time to create, deliver, and respond to the results in my employee survey. You can, too.

Employee surveys are humbling experiences. Sometimes you’re humbled by the trust your employees place in you as a leader. Other times you’re humbled by the things you have to work on. Often it’s a mix of both. But if you’re serious about identifying the cause of burnout at your company, don’t skip this step.

Share the Results and Talk About Next Steps

When you’re fixing culture problems, it’s really important to bring people along in every step of the process. Share the group results. Your employees are dying to know if everyone else feels the way they do. They’re anxious to see how you react to what the group has said. Choose your words carefully. You want to make it clear that you understand the problem, and are committed to fixing it. This is a huge opportunity to built your employees’ trust and respect for you and your company. Don’t blow it.

Then let your actions back up your words. Give the good assignments to the people who go home on time. Promote the people who fight for reasonable work loads. Bonus the teams that use all of their vacation time. And retrain (or rehome) the managers who perpetuate poor work/life balance.

Give people a solid reason to change their habits, and they will do so.

Burnout culture is a people problem that requires a people-centric solution. You CAN get at the root cause of the problem. Approach the process with humility and honesty–and put your actions where your mouth is. You’ll not only change your work culture, but also create a team that trusts you and will follow wherever you lead.

What I’m Learning About Psychological Safety

A tree with autumn foliage next to a beach.
Autumn at a Vancouver beach.

Happy mid-October everyone! Vancouver has reset back to normal, and we’re in for a week of rain. I spent a large portion of the long weekend soaking in the last of the beautiful Autumn sunshine before the rain moved in. It was Thanksgiving in Canada this past Monday and I was thankful for the weather. My kids found a leaf pile and I discovered that I never want to get into a leaf fight with them. They take no prisoners.

I also participated in the first ever Remote Work 5k, put together by Cantilever and Workplaceless. It was big fun. We all jumped into a zoom room at the beginning of the race, and then ran the course of our choice. I won recognition for Coldest run! I hope this is the first of many such virtual races because it was fun completing a 5k with my fellow remote workers. Some of us ran, some walked or hiked, and at least one of us swam the distance.

I also spent time studying psychological safety. A quick internet search showed that I should start with Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School. Her research is at the foundation of this subject. This is the link to the article if you want to read what I’m reading.

This article represents some of the early work Edmondson has done on the subject, and few things stood out:

Psychological safety leads to learning behaviour.

When I started this research I thought psychological safety led to high performing teams. Based on what the article hyperlinked above, it really has more to do with team learning. A team that can learn quickly may lead to high performance under certain conditions. If your team deals with a high degree of uncertainty and complexity, then you want people who can learn and adapt. Most (if not all) knowledge work falls into this category. However, if your team doesn’t work in these sorts of conditions then learning isn’t a good predictor of high performance.

As an aside, I believe we should create psychologically safe spaces at work anyway. It’s the right thing to do. But the problems you’ll prevent are turnover and burnout.

Context support and leadership can impact psychological safety.

This one sounded like a real no-brainer to me. If you give your team the tools and information they need (context support) and act as a coach who sets a direction and helps people get there, then they should feel safe to learn and experiment.

The article I read focused more on whether psychological safety leads to learning, so Edmondson didn’t spend a lot of time proving that these were THE factors that lead to feeling safe. She merely said that there seemed to be a positive relationship between those factors and a healthy team dynamic. Still, there were still some interesting details. I was surprised to see that there were teams who felt safe even if one of these factors was missing. She concludes by saying that more research was needed on what causes psychological safety.

I suspect that it’s a lot harder to experience psychological safety in the remote workforce if you have a micro-managing boss. This paper was written in 1999 and Edmondson studied co-located teams. It’s entirely possible for a team to bond over the shared experience of a bad boss if they work in an office. I’ve lived that experience. The boss says something regrettable, and the team makes eye contact behind his back. Next thing you know everyone is taking lunch together so they can compare notes and vent.

It’s a lot harder to do that as a remote worker. So many of your interactions happen one on one. It’s one thing to make eye contact with your coworker when you share an experience. It’s quite another to call your co worker and ask if they like the boss. I have some theories about how to create psychological safety in the remote workforce despite having a bad boss. I can’t wait to see if some else has studied this as I continue my research.

Do you work in a team that is remote and psychologically safe? I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to comment on this post or contact me directly. I’d love to hear from you.

On to the Next Book

Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

Greetings from Autumnal Vancouver! It was 8 c Tuesday morning (that’s 47 f for the Americans), and if I could bottle the buttery light that poured through the branches of the Douglas Fir trees near my house, I would have sent it to you.

The rain will be back–I live in a temperate rain forest–but for now we’re in shorts with sweaters weather. Is this a Pacific Northwest specific thing? It’s not the most fashionable way to handle this transitional season, but I support wearing hand-knit sweaters.

And speaking of transitions, and slowing down, the cadence of this blog is going to slow down for the month of October. I have a second book to write. I know my topic, and the research I need to conduct. I’ve known for months. The only problem is that I’m not doing it. This blog will come out every other week instead of every week so I can dedicate solid chunks of time to writing.

Once I get rolling on my research, I’ll have plenty of material for both the blog and the book. So (for now) I plan to go back to weekly blog posts in November.

So What’s the Book About?

I’m so glad you asked. I’m looking at psychological safety in the remote workforce. There’s a lot of good research out there about the benefits of psychological safety in uncertain times. There’s even research on creating a sense of safety inside a company. I want to discuss how we might do this in the remote work context.

There’s more to what I’m going to write but I’m not going to outline it here. If I talk about my book in too much detail, it makes it harder to write. Some people write books by plotting everything out. Others write by the seat of their pants. The writing world calls these two groups plotters and pantsers. I am a plantster. I outline a bit, then write, then outline a little bit more and write.

Writing a book is like hiking. I like to pick my destination point but let the research tell me which pathways I should use to get through the woods. The blog will be the place where I drop little breadcrumbs along the way.

Hopefully you’ll enjoy the view.

Taking a Remote Sick Day

I looked just like this on Monday except my couch isn’t that big and my house isn’t that neat. Photo by Pixabay courtesy of Pexels.com.

I have a problem with sick days. My problem is that I don’t always take them. I caught my kids’ flu (thanks kids) Sunday evening, and still went to work on Monday.

Why Is it So Hard to Take Sick Days in the Remote Workforce?

I blame my children. (It’s what all good mothers do.) When the kids were very small I saved my sick days for when they got sick. And I’ve never broken out of the habit. Working remotely means I don’t have to.

I once worked in an office where one guy—we’ll call him Typhoid Mary—would come to work even when sick. Inevitably the entire office would catch his plague. It didn’t take very long before the office adopted a “stay home if you’re sick” work culture.

But when you work from home, you can’t infect anyone. The social pressure to stay home is gone. Now (at least for me) it’s hard to tell when to take a sick day. I don’t have to drive anywhere. I don’t even have to sit upright. If I’m well enough to binge watch Netflix, why aren’t I well enough to work?

I’m not the only one who does this. According to SoftChoice, a North American IT solutions and managed services provider, 57% of the 1,700 people they surveyed admitted to working on sick days. 80% of those folks spent sick days working through email.

There are many reasons people do this. Perhaps they don’t want to return to work and find an overflowing inbox. Maybe they’re worried that everyone will assume they’re slacking. Whatever the reason, I believe there are things we can all do to help people rest when they’re sick.

Bring Back the Social Pressure

I went to work on Monday while I was sick, and my team told me to go back to bed. Forcibly. (In a very professional, HR appropriate kind of way.) We should do this more for one another. I’ve seen other colleagues working while sick and I haven’t suggested they go back to bed. I’m going to start doing this from now on. We’re all adults. We need to make our own decisions, but sometimes we need that extra kick in the pants to make the right one. I certainly did.

Some folks may not feel comfortable telling people to go back to bed. As an alternative you might tell someone that took a sick day that you’re glad they took time to rest. Let’s reward each other for taking a balanced approach to work.

Reevaluate Work Loads

If your direct reports work while sick, you may want to perform a work load audit. Can an actual human being finish enough tasks to do a good job in an assigned role? How do you know? Do your direct reports have the tools needed to complete work efficiently? How do you know? Managers aren’t always responsible for the amount of work a company places on its employees, but we can always take on the role of advocate for our people.

Employees have to share the burden when it comes to evaluating task loads. Remote employees work out of sight for most of the day. It won’t always be obvious that we’re drowning under too much to do. If your boss is reasonable, give that person a chance to lighten your load. Speak up–and come prepared with examples.

Provide a Safety Net

If a colleague is sick, offer to take care of their time-sensitive tasks. I had two things weighing on my mind, and when I was still sick on Tuesday my team took over those tasks so I could rest with a clear conscience. It’s pretty great working on a team that has each other’s back. Don’t wait for your boss to build this sort of culture. A trusting work place begins with you.

It can sometimes feel hard to justify sick days when you already work from home. Like so many other things in the remote workforce, we each have the ability to craft the work life we want to see. Offer to help people take needed time off either through social pressure or taking tasks of their plate. Let them do the same for you. If we all work on this, we will create a more humane work culture. We’ll work for companies where people take the time they need to recover, and return rested and ready to go.

If You Want to Manage People Well Through a Crisis, First You Must Manage Yourself

Making decisions and coming up with solutions feels so good in the moment. But sometimes the best thing a manager can do is to step back and let your team do their job.

Photo by Amol Mande from Pexels

Happy Friday everyone! It’s been an action-packed week at Remota HQ. Thanks to the magic of the remote workforce, I live nowhere near the Texas Gulf coast and yet have to deal with the effects of tropical depression Imelda. Thankfully the teachers that I manage are all safe.

There’s a particular sort of stress that comes from being responsible for people who are dealing with forces outside of your control. There needs to be a specific word for this. We have a word for throwing someone out a window, for goodness sake. Standing back and letting your people work through a tough situation without micromanaging it happens way more often. (I hope.) It deserves its own word.

Have You Done Enough?

In any event, I’ve found that I’m most helpful when I take a moment to determine when I’ve done enough. Did I make all the the decisions that must go through me? Did I give my folks the tools they need to do their job? Do my direct reports know I’m in their corner, ready to support them? And then—this is important—if I’ve done everything I can do, have I stopped trying to manage the situation so my people can get on with it?

On Tuesday I had a teacher contact me to ask whether we should cancel an evening class in her area. The powers that be had just issued a flash flood warning, and some (but not all) of the businesses near her were closing early. She wanted to know if we should do the same.

Now I love solving problems. It feels so good to be the one with the answer. I even went so far as to start firing off an email before I stopped myself and took a moment to think. Remote work has its own set of challenges, but there are times when the asynchronous communication helps us make better decisions. My direct report couldn’t see me. So instead of sending a quick email to her, I instant-messaged colleague. I asked him what criteria he used to decide whether or not to cancel a class due to weather.

He replied back with “I usually trust the person on the ground to make that call.”

That was the right answer. Our teachers operate in a high trust environment. They go through a vetting process before we hire them. Of course the person in the situation should decide whether it was safe enough to hold class that night.

I emailed the teacher back and let her know that she was the best person to make that call. I would fully support her decision. We just needed to know what it was by noon.

Inigo Montoya Isn’t the Only One Who Hates Waiting

And then I waited. As the a Spaniard from the Princess Bride said “I hate waiting.” But there wasn’t anything else I could do to make the situation better. There were plenty of things I could do to make it worse. So instead, I got up and went for a walk in my neighborhood.

Don’t get me wrong. I still had plenty of other fires to put out that day. But nothing exploded in the fifteen minutes I took to walk off the urge to micromanage. Most things don’t.

I’ve found that the difference between effective and ineffective managers often boils down to how well a person manages their head space. You don’t have to be all knowing–or even particularly calm. You do have to learn the best way to short-circuit your knee jerk reactions.

For me, that means doing something physical like a walk or a run. Or I go make lunch. Once, when I was trapped in a video meeting that was making me snarky, I grabbed a nearby knitting project and knit in a way that wouldn’t show up on camera. Some people have emergency fire extinguishers in their offices. I have emergency knitting. Any port in a storm.

The things I use to short-circuit my knee jerk reactions may not work for you. The important thing is to start experimenting until you have your own toolbox of coping mechanisms. If you have anything you really like, I’d love to hear about it. I’m always looking to add to my own toolbox.

Breathing Spaces, Not Resolutions

Everything feels better on the beach.

Somehow September turned into New Year’s Resolutions, Part 2. I thought this was a parent-specific thing, but I know childless people who are caught up in the ‘new school year, new you’ craziness. According to my inbox, now is the perfect time to reset my diet, take up an exercise challenge, read the latest books by my favourite authors, and start that Coursera course someone picked just for me. It’s like everyone’s high on Pumpkin Spice latte fumes.

All joking aside, I get it. Why not put away your bad habits AND your summer clothes all at the same time? It’s so efficient! Personally, I just spent the last two months working while the kids were on summer break. I’m tired. All I really want to do is enjoy the fact that someone else is legally obligated to provide an excellent learning environment for my children, at no extra cost to me.

Last year I fell for the Pumpkin Spice fumes. I joined a run challenge, bought cookbooks to help me make healthy dinners my kids would love, and tried to Amazon prime my way to a new life.

That didn’t turn out so well. I love running and cooking; the activities themselves weren’t the problem. The problem was that I added more stuff to my already crammed lifestyle without pausing to consider where I would fit them in.

This September I did something different.

I Took a Secret Vacation

It wasn’t a total secret. I want to stay employed, after all. My job knew I was taking time off. My family and friends did not. I love my family. I love my friends. But when they know I’m off, I tend to get asked to do laundry or go out to lunch. The whole point of this particular exercise was to side-step my routine and examine it from the outside.

So on Monday I got up at the usual time, went into my office at the usual time, and asked myself questions I haven’t asked in a while. What do I really want to do with my days? What should I do to go back to work feeling like I’d had a good time off? And then I sat back and waited.

I don’t know how the rest of you see the different facets of your personality. I think of mine as a committee. There’s my inner maker, who would love to spend an entire day making things. There’s my inner athlete, who prefers long sessions sweating in the great outdoors. My inner toddler wanted to go exploring. And my inner writer wanted to write things on a more forgiving deadline.

I like doing other things too. These were simply the activities that moved to the head of the queue when I thought about what I really wanted to do. Since the stakes were low (I only had to figure out two days) the committee vote came through pretty quickly. I would spend Monday reading and writing. Tuesday I would knit and walk on the beach. The goal for both days was to spend as much time as possible neither speaking nor being spoken to.

The Secret Vacation Backstory

I’ve taken secret vacations since my first child was an infant. We all have the right to say ‘I need breathing space,’ and expect the world to leave us alone for a bit. Unfortunately babies don’t work union hours. And mothers, in particular, aren’t supposed to want time away from their children. It’s pretty easy to get to a point where you’re too tired of fighting to fight for what you need. So we suck it up.

Until the day that I didn’t. One day I got dressed for work and dropped my daughter at daycare. Then instead of going to work I drove to the beach and called in sick. I didn’t do much. I walked for a long time. My favorite yarn store in LA was six blocks from that beach, so I went and knit at their big wood table. I bought an early dinner. And then I went back to the daycare at the usual time and took my child home.

All together I played hooky for six hours. It was life changing. I went home better able to deal with new motherhood, a demanding job, and the fallout from the 2009 recession. Best of all, I didn’t have to fight anyone for the respite because no one knew I’d taken it.

It was my little secret. And I knew I would do it again.

The Power of a Small, Sneaky Escape

Some people walk the Appalachian Trail in an effort to find themselves. But you can reap the same benefits on a smaller scale with a secret vacation. There’s something powerful about asking yourself what you really want to do with your time and waiting for the answer. It almost doesn’t matter how much time you set aside. Reserving–and enforcing–a breathing space is an empowering act.

Plus, keeping things small means you can do it more often. If it’s been a long time since you’ve done the things you really want to do, your inner committee might resemble the mob outside Walmart on Thanksgiving. Every one of your interests will try to out-shout the others when you’re starved for free time. If you plan regular escapes, the committee settles down. Your true priorities emerge. You leave your vacation time with a better sense of what recharges you. And that right there is snack-sized self reflection.

Third, sneaking out of your life prevents you from spending your free time doing the soul-sucking things you “should” do. Nobody can know you’re off. They’ll figure it out for sure if your kitchen floor goes from grimy to gleaming in an afternoon. Therefore, for operational secrecy, you need to leave that floor alone.

People Think My Vacations Are Weird But Really They’re Awesome

I (usually) tell my husband about my secret vacations after they’re over. Mostly he’s bemused by the whole idea. Others look at me like I’m crazy when they find out. But for me, these little interludes are (metaphorically speaking) how I put the oxygen mask on my own face first before helping anyone else. On Wednesday I dove back into my usual schedule. I didn’t have a new life, but I definitely felt like a new me.

If you’re feeling like you need a change, maybe what you really need is a secret vacation. Give it a try. The sanity you save might just be your own.

What I Wish School Staff Knew About Remote Working Parents

Photo by Emma Bauso from Pexels

Yesterday I nearly forgot to pick up my kids from school. My only excuse is that it was their first full day back. I had finished work for my day job and was deciding between writing or practicing my guitar when I remembered that I had somewhere to be. 

Technically, I could have waited a little longer before driving to the kids’ school, but I knew that if I left home early enough I could write in the pick up line while I waited. The plan would have worked perfectly, too, if it hadn’t been for those dang kids. My son was on the playground and he saw me drive in. At that point he and his friend spent a good two minutes trying to get my attention before the supervision aide told them to “let your mom chillax in the car!” 

While I appreciate the sentiment, that innocent comment reminded me of all the assumptions school staff make about parents generally and remote workers in particular. We may look like we’re all scrolling through social media in the car, but the truth is a little more nuanced. If you work at a school and want to get more participation from the remote working parents, then here are some things you should know.

Summers Are Stressful 

We remote workers usually have more flexible jobs than our office-based spouses. This usually means we’re the ones who’ve spent the summer attempting to work while the kids are home. It’s tempting to say that teachers work surrounded by children all the time and seem to do okay. However, children are the work in this case, so the comparison isn’t a good one. Picture holding a sensitive parent/teacher conference in the middle of a classroom while surrounded by all the other children in the class. Now picture doing so for 8 hours a day for 40 days. Summers aren’t restful. 

School staff will have a better chance of getting remote workers involved in school activities if they assume we’re exhausted and behind at work. We do want to meet our children’s teachers and school staff. We don’t want to come to multiple events scheduled closely together. Instead of holding a meet the teacher event one week and a back to school BBQ the next, combined those two events into one meet the teacher BBQ. Please and thank you.

Our Remote Jobs Are Real Jobs

I no longer tell my children’s teachers that I work from home. I used to, but I had one particular teacher who took this as a euphemism for ‘unemployed and available for last minute requests’. Now I tell them that I work full time and leave it at that. 

This is a lost partnership opportunity both for me and for any school who has parents that work remotely. We remote workers can flex our schedules around to a greater or lesser extent. Give us enough notice, ask respectfully, and many of us will move things around to help you out. We know that schools are under funded and rely on parent participation to get work done. Some of us chose remote work in order to get more involved with our children’s lives. But that doesn’t mean we can drop everything to attend a field trip with 48 hours notice. 

Be Strategic with Your Requests

Personally, I either need to work late into the night or use a vacation day to make room in my schedule for you. Other remote workers might have to work on the weekend or take a pay hit. There is always a cost. The shorter the notice, the higher the cost. We’re much more likely to volunteer if we can trust that you will minimize that pain for us. 

You’ll Get A Faster Response From Us If You Go Digital

Not everyone has access to the internet at home. I am not suggesting that digital communication replace paper communication. Rather, give us the option to choose electronic communication over paper. Someone creates 90% of those forms on a computer anyway. Send them to us via email or upload them to the school website. 

100% of my children have lost paper permission slips. I think their back packs eat them. It would be really great if six year olds could responsibly manage their own paperwork and day planners. But even some university students can’t do that consistently and they have a much better grasp on reality. My kids don’t always know what day it is. Once, when my son was six, I interrupted him in the middle of tying a jump rope around his neck. The other half was already tied to the stair railing. He thought this was a great way to jump off of the top of the stairs without killing himself. Teaching my kid to give me notices is a lower priority than keeping him from dying. There are only so many hours in the day. 

That may look like an ordinary back pack, but it’s really where permission slips go to die. This is also the only first day of school picture my kids allowed me to share on the internet.

Digital Payments Are a Thing

Last year my children’s school gave us the option to pay for school expenses online. It’s wonderful. Now I get an email when I need to pay something, and I go in and do so. This cuts down on the number of phone calls I get from the school asking if I will allow my daughter to go on the field trip I didn’t even know about. Canadians are indeed a polite people, but they can weaponize that politeness like you wouldn’t believe. I only wish the website came with the ability to sign permission slips, too. A woman can dream. 

Digital Communication is Also a Thing

And speaking of dreams, many of us would love to sign up for things like parent/teacher conferences electronically. Please don’t make us sign a paper taped to the classroom door. Trying to find a parking space at the school during pick up or drop off time is like going to fight club. I have seen people pull up onto the sidewalk right in front of small children, or speed the wrong way down the two lane road, just to grab the last spot in the loading zone. Don’t make me leave the car protecting me from those people. 

I would love to tell my children’s teachers that I have a flexible work schedule. Remote work provides greater opportunity for parental involvement at school. Maybe some day things will change. However, that can only happen if there is respectful, efficient communication between school staff and parents. That sort of healthy relationship starts with a few tweaks to existing assumptions about remote workers. School staff should plan school events strategically. They should provide a variety of options to communicate, pay for items, and sign up for events. If they do so, they may find that more parents—not just remote workers—become more involved in school activities, to the benefit of the children.